from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Monday, 11 November 2013

that under-estimated thistle: the artichoke

Can I persuade you today to be a little interested in the humble globe artichoke plant? – There's an enormous amount going on beneath the surface for me at the moment (see my last post about Mercury retrograde, and how one of its manifestations for me is a creative ferment that I struggle to express): I'm thinking, writing and studying a lot at the moment in relation to two new books, new courses and two fairly high-powered talks I'm scheduled to give on the Grail, the tarot, the Goddess and esoteric green spirituality, and getting any of this out as a small pre-digested blog post is beyond me right now. My brain hurts. (Also – after a long dry spell – I'm writing poetry again, but none of it is fit to share.)

So all I can cope with is sharing my passion for artichokes, the sight of acres of which when I cross the Channel from nearby Plymouth into Brittany is enough to evoke small raptures. I can't quite understand why everyone else is at best lukewarm and at worst positively disinterested in them (though I can understand why I could be accused – quite rightly – of triviality here in this blog in relation to various humanitarian, environmental and social concerns; my plea is let me have my small indulgence, now and then).

My mum, having for the first time partaken of the ritual of eating them (a fiddly occupation which, admittedly, in terms of quantity of food ingested, perhaps doesn't quite justify, in some minds, the half-hour it takes up), looked at me afterwards and said: 'Ro, I hope you don't mind my saying but I'm not sure I thought much of that experience.'

However, I do share this passion with Guy Watson, founder of Riverford Organics and probably the single biggest influence on the organic scene, and especially the veg box scheme in Britain. Guy in his recipe book says: 'Many farmers have a passion for one crop or animal that surpasses any rational consideration. For my father and grandfather it was pigs. For two generations they lost money and no amount of pleading from the accountant deterred them from having a few rooting around. For me it is globe artichokes: they have yet to make a penny but I live with an optimism that truly represents the triumph of hope over experience... A Russian herbalist told me that it was because they cleanse the liver, the seat of anger. She attributed my obsession to my need, as an angry person, for self-medication.'

And also, as well as supposedly being an aphrodisiac (though I can't say I've noticed that), they are good at decreasing cholesterol, and contain folic acid, B vitamins, vitamin K, vitamin C, antioxidants and a host of minerals such as copper, calcium, potassium, iron, manganese and phosphorus.

And they look good, rising above the herbs and bee-flowers at the back of the bed. In 'putting the garden to bed' for the winter, I haven't been able to bring myself to prune hard back, as you're supposed to, the exuberant architectural foliage of the artichokes. I look out of the kitchen window and where I've cut back the other plants they still rise, magnificent and stately above the garden stone walls.

One of the things I love about artichokes is their spiral growth pattern: like so many other naturally-occurring things, they unfold according to the golden ratio, or the Fibonacci principle that no doubt I've raved about on here before (I like to believe that this geometric sequence underpins the pattern of the cosmos). More pragmatically, I like that they are the easiest and most undemanding of any food-crop grown ever; and, just as pleasing, they fruit on and on for months (the fruit, if that's what we might call the bit we eat, comes before the flower). If I let one or two flower instead, their exotic lilac-coloured flowers, big cousins to thistles, seduce all the passing bees.

It's all my daughter's fault. My daughter has had joint problems for quite a time from her late teens. I say 'has' but it's now mostly 'had': one of the ways she dealt with them was by a strict exclusion diet to filter out any foods of which she was intolerant. At the time, she was living in the mediaeval university town of Caceres in Spain, where her then boyfriend was studying for a PhD (in flamenco guitar). Fruit and veg were plentiful and cheap, and her joint problems were easing.

She emailed me when she and Boyfriend split up, just before she came back to stay with me for a few months: 'Can't eat anything except asparagus, walnuts and artichokes.' Gulp. (She was serious, though she was also tongue-in-cheek.) Although I've always considered myself undeservedly rich in all the ways that really matter, in terms of income I've always been one of the Rural Poor, and none of those plants were on my radar then. Spuds, yes; onions, yes; apples yes; but the rest??

Fast forward a few months, and her new boyfriend had bought her – and sown – 80 artichoke seeds as part of her Christmas present.

I was, as I always have been, renting, and had recently taken over a rubble-filled patch of wasteland behind the cottage where a building had been demolished. It was completely rubbish ground, but I had a small and productive (if not very weedfree) veg plot at one end, and we planted out the artichokes, all that had survived (which was most of them), in the rest. Jay also planted us an asparagus bed: that didn't thrive, but the artichokes did to the extent that we were not only eating them every day, but giving them away and selling them to the local organic-but-not-certified veg box grower.

Then when the cottage was sold and my daughter moved on to the middle of the moor and I moved in with TM, we each dug up a few of the artichokes to bring with us.

Of my six, only one thrived; but this has become a huge and wonderful matriarch, and is now accompanied by another five or six little ones in two different varieties. The young ones survived all the winds, frost and rain of last winter as seedlings out in the open, and this year I've had all the fruit I could wish for, and more. Two more little ones tonight, and that might be it for this year – nearly six months' of them.

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